Mainz 2007 – Levon Aronian leads in Chess960

by ChessBase
8/15/2007 – At the start of the Chess Classic in Mainz four world class GMs – Anand, Aronian, Bacrot and Kasimdzhanov – are battling it out in an extraordinary form of the game: Chess960, a Fischer Random variant where the pieces are shuffled at the start. But what are the rules and how can you replay these games? We answer both questions and give you a free Chess960 player.

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Chess Classic Mainz 2007

The event takes place from August 13 to 19 in the Rheingoldhalle of the Congress Centre, Hilton Hotel in Mainz, Germany. It includes matches and Opens in traditional and Random Chess, with stars like the current world's number one Anand, who will play in Chess960 (Fischer Random) and in rapid chess tournaments together with Levon Aronian, Rustam Kasimdzhanov and Etienne Bacrot.

Aronian Shines on First Day

Johannes Fischer on day one of the Chess960 FiNet World Championship

When Freddy Mercury declares to be one of a group of champions, the top players in Mainz know that things are starting to get serious. Traditionally, in Mainz the famous Queen-song signals the beginning of the round: The players go on stage, sit down to study the – this time unknown – position and the hall is darkened. The spectators fall silent to focus on the games shown on two huge screens towering above the stage. Those who look for some expert comment and do not trust the whispered comments by their friends put on their headphones to listen to the analyses of GM Artur Jussupow and GM Fabian Döttling. Or they just throw a glance on the two monitors in front of the stage, on which the computer program Spike reveals how he thinks, or rather calculates, the position should be evaluated.

How would Vishy Anand play Chess960? The many fans of the nine times Chess Classic winner were keen to find out – particularly because the World’s number one revealed before the tournament that he had hardly ever played this form of chess before. He himself said in the press conference after the first three rounds: “I think I coped reasonably well. However, you have to be careful because the h and a-pawns can be without protection right from the start and you have to overcome a mental block because you just cannot imagine that some squares are not protected.”

Favourite in the Rapid Chess section, but what about Chess960? Vishy Anand

But even if Anand might have had some problems to get used to the unfamiliar beginnings of Chess960, he could still count on his defensive abilities – which he made ample use of. In his first serious Chess960 game he had to play Rustam Kasimdzhanov with the black pieces and after getting a good game he blundered, had to give a pawn and landed in a rook ending which looked simply lost. Only the fact that Kasimdzhanov’s clock had run down to less than a minute seemed to be able to save Anand. But the ending was [not] that easy to win, which Kasimdzhanov later emphasized in the press conference: “Okay, I was in time trouble, but I only played natural moves and couldn’t win”. He also mused about the five seconds increment, which the players receive after each move: “Well, you quickly find out that five seconds aren’t much. You play quickly, but discover that you don’t gain any time.” Whatever the reason, finally Anand finished his Chess960 debut with a draw.

India vs Uzbekistan, Anand vs Kasimdzhanov, Chess 960

However, the real star of the first day of the tournament was Levon Aronian. He seemed to handle each of the three starting positions with uncanny ease. In the first round he had to play Etienne Bacrot and even though Aronian later admitted that “the position after the opening was nothing special” Bacrot burdened himself with an isolated queen pawn. Aronian promptly exerted pressure on this pawn, and this pressure soon turned into a dangerous attack. In a difficult position and being far behind on the clock Bacrot couldn’t find a defense and Aronian won the game with a couple of fine tactical shots.

Etienne Bacrot (left) facing the experienced Chess960 master Levon Aronian

Aronian’s second round win against Kasimdzhanov seemed even smoother. Proving his creative and unprejudiced thinking Aronian advanced his f-pawn in the opening straightaway to f5, which later guaranteed him a structural advantage, and, to quote Aronian, “allowed my pieces to work well”. Kasimdzhanov was even more pessimistic in his evaluation of the position, which he considered “to be lost after six moves”. In fact, Aronian’s pieces soon developed considerable pressure, which Kasimdzhanov tried to ease by sacrificing a pawn. Aronian took the pawn, didn’t release the pressure and went on to win without problems.

The man to beat in Chess960: Armenian GM Levon Aronian

Finally, Aronian had to play Anand. Anand later joked that his real fear in playing Chess960 was to get mated by Aronian in four moves, and in fact Anand mishandled the opening and had to give a pawn to avoid worse. Now, another imprecise move put Anand in real trouble and it seemed as if Aronian would finish the first day of the tournament with a 100% score. However, the Indian again proved to be a master of escape, albeit with a bit of help by his opponent. In a favorable ending Aronian just blundered his extra-pawn, after which the players immediately agreed to a draw.

Meanwhile Kasimdzhanov managed to make up for his loss against Aronian by winning against Bacrot. Being better throughout the game he finally won through energetic endgame play.

As Anand and Bacrot drew their second round game, Aronian emerges as the clear leader after the first day and the first three rounds. With 2.5 points he is one point ahead of Anand and Kasimdzhanov, who in turn are one point ahead of Bacrot. Tomorrow will show how quickly Anand was able to learn from today’s games and whether Aronian will be able to shine so brightly as he did today.

Standings after day one

Replaying the games

Due mainly to the specially castling rules (see below) Chess960 games recorded in PGN cannot be easily replayed with regular chess programs or applications. However Fritz 10 can handle these files, in PGN or ChessBase formats. ChessBase 9 or ChessBase Light can also do the same, using the games in ChessBase format.

How about a nice game of Chess960?

Note that with Fritz 10 you can also play Chess960 against the or on the Playchess server. With ChessBase Light you can do the latter.

To do this you should enter the special rooms reserved for Chess960. You can go there to watch the broadcasts of the games being played at the Mainz Chess Classic, or you can play games against other users yourself.

You can also stage tournaments, for humans or for chess engines which know the game.

Fischer Random Chess

Fischer Random Chess (also called Chess960, Chess 960, Fischerandom chess, FR chess, or FullChess) is a variant of random chess defined by Bobby Fischer and introduced formally to the chess public on June 19, 1996, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Fischer's goal is to eliminate what he considers the complete dominance of openings preparation in chess today, and to replace it with creativity and talent.

Bobby Fischer playing Fischer Random against Susan Polgar in Budapest in 1993

You can see the shuffled starting position in the above picture

Fischer's goal is achieved by randomizing the position of the pieces behind the row of pawns in the initial position. It is different to earlier forms of random chess in the following points:

  • In the initial position the white king must be placed somewhere between the two white rooks. It cannot stand to the left or right of both rooks, which also means it cannot stand on a1 or h1. A random configuration with the king on b1 and rooks on a1 and c1 is okay.
  • The two bishops be placed on opposite-colored squares.
  • The configuration of the white and the black pieces are the same.

There are 960 different openings positions, and a number of ways of choosing one at random. The best is probably to use a computer program that will either randomize on the fly or select a position at random from a database of 960 random configurations. You can also use coins, dice or cards.

In Fischer Random Chess there are special castling rules, which essentially require that after castling the king and the rook are on the same squares as they would be after castling in a regular game of chess (i.e. on c1 and d1, or on g1 and f1). Castling can only occur under the following conditions:

  • The king and the castling room may not have move previously in the game (as in traditional chess)
  • The squares the king occupies, crosses and comes to rest on may not be attacked by an enemy piece (as in traditional chess). In other words: the king cannot be in check before, during or after castling.
  • All the squares between the king's initial and final squares and all of the squares between the rook's initial and final squares must be vacant. The king and rook cannot jump over other pieces, only over each other.

These castling rules lead to certain unusual consequences. Sometimes only one piece moves during castling, for instance if the king is on c1 or g1 in the initial position, or the rook on d1 or f1. And whereas normally one should move the king first during castling, if the rook is on a square the king will land on you must move the rook first.


In the first game of round one we can see an extraordinary form of castling:

Aronian,Levon - Bacrot,Etienne
FiNet Chess960 Rapid World Championship Chess Classic Mainz (1.1), 2007

Chess960 starting position

1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.b3 e6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Bf6 6.Bb2 b6 7.Nf3 Bxb2 8.Qxb2 Nf6 9.Nc3 d5 10.cxd5 exd5 11.e3 Rd8 12.Nb5 Bg4 13.Nbd4 Nxd4 14.Nxd4 Bxd1 15.Rxd1

If you have read the castling rules above carefully you will know what the board looked like after the players had made their next move: 15...0-0 16.0-0

Interesting, no? The game ended with 16...Qb7 17.Rd3 Rc8 18.Rfd1 Rc5 19.Nf5 Kh8 20.b4 Rc7 21.Rxd5 Qc8 22.h3 Rc2 23.Qa1 Rg8 24.Nh6 Qe6 25.Rd6 1-0.


The first Fischer Random Chess tourney was held in Yugoslavia in the spring of 1996, and was won by Grandmaster Peter Leko. In 2001, Leko became the first Fischer Random Chess world champion, defeating Grandmaster Michael Adams in an eight game match played as part of the Mainz Chess Classic. In addition, Leko has played Fischer Random Chess games with Fischer himself. In 2002 at Mainz, an open Fischer Random tournament with 131 players was held. It was won by Peter Svidler. At the 2003 Mainz Chess Classic, Svidler beat Leko in an eight game match by a score of 4.5-3.5 to win the title of Fischer Random World Championship.


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